A few observations from another intriguing Saturday night of college basketball
Kentucky stepped up in the most important game of its season. Prior to Saturday’s Missouri-Kentucky matchup, the SEC had already completed multiple exciting games earlier in the day. LSU beat Alabama in triple overtime. Georgia defeated South Carolina in overtime. And Tennessee outplayed Texas A&M in quadruple overtime. But Kentucky and Missouri delivered in the conference’s most significant matchup. After losing Nerlens Noel to a season-ending knee injury, the Wildcats lost to Tennessee by 30 points. Season over, right? I mean, that team competed like a team that just wanted the season to end. Kentucky didn’t do anything that a squad should do when it’s trying to convince the selection committee that it’s worthy of an NCAA tournament bid. I had no faith in this group. The Wildcats, however, silenced some of their critics with their overtime win against Missouri at Rupp Arena on Saturday. The 90-83 victory might help UK get into the field of 68 -- and the Cats might have changed the trajectory of their entire season with the gutsy win. Julius Mays led the Wildcats (four reached double figures) with 24 points. By the end of the game, he could barely walk. Kentucky had earned that exhaustion. Missouri, meanwhile, earned criticism. More criticism. Once again, the Tigers collapsed on the road. They were up by 13 points in the first half, and then they unraveled. They always do outside Columbia, it seems. Phil Pressey's costly turnover with 48 seconds remaining in overtime summed up Mizzou’s entire season: talent marred by mistakes and chemistry issues. In the end, a Tigers team comprised of veterans lost to a group of raw youngsters which graduated from high school a year ago. Give Kentucky credit. Doubt the Tigers.
Health will be Florida’s top concern in March. The Gators proved that they’re still a high-powered team when they bullied Arkansas 71-54 on Saturday. Florida’s loss to Missouri -- and an earlier loss at Arkansas -- sparked questions about Billy Donovan’s program, but the Gators have been one of the nation’s most dominant teams all season. And their successes outweigh their stumbles. In March, they’re not going to run into many teams that can handle their backcourt and Patric Young (14 points, 7 rebounds and a block on Saturday). What about their health? Michael Frazier II suffered a concussion in the victory over the Razorbacks. Erik Murphy tweaked an ankle this week. Will Yeguete is out with a knee injury. Donovan’s program hasn’t been 100 percent in a long time. That’s a concern now and as March Madness approaches. A healthy Gators team can contend with any program in the country. There will be less certainty, however, if Florida enters the NCAA tournament at anything less than 100 percent.
I don’t understand Villanova, but I like its style. Check Villanova’s résumé. Confused? You should be. The Wildcats have been swept by Providence. They have a nonconference loss to Columbia. Alabama beat them by 22 points in the first half of the season. But the Wildcats also have recent victories over Louisville and Syracuse. They’re 7-9 against the RPI top 100 but 3-1 against its top 25. Still, the Wildcats had zero guarantees entering Saturday’s matchup with a Marquette team that was locked in a three-way tie for first place in the Big East, and they played like a team that recognized its predicament. And I dig that. I mean, don’t expect a bid. Take one. And that’s what Villanova may have done with Saturday’s victory. Mouphtaou Yarou finished with 10 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals and an assist in his final game at The Pavilion. Yarou and his teammates (Darrun Hilliard led all scorers with 22 points) fought. Marquette (19 turnovers) made a late push, but it couldn’t overcome the Wildcats’ lead. Villanova’s résumé is not perfect, but you can’t tell me that the Wildcats aren’t playing like a tourney team right now.
Saint Mary’s is doing what it can. The Gaels entered their home game against Creighton in a bubble situation. Their one problem all year? Gonzaga. The Zags are five steps beyond the rest of the league, and the West Coast Conference doesn’t offer any other true quality opponents (BYU is OK, I guess). So Saturday’s home game against a Creighton team that looked like a lock for the tourney was crucial for the Gaels. Saint Mary's toyed with the Bluejays in a 74-66 win. That’s what a team in SMC's situation should do. The Gaels can’t enhance the WCC in the coming weeks, but they can win convincingly in their toughest remaining matchups. Saturday was a good start. It also proves that the Missouri Valley Conference is not as good as many expected it to be. A few weeks ago, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall told me that the Valley was like a “mini-Big Ten,” and I agreed with him. At the time, Indiana State, Creighton, and Wichita State were all tourney teams. Not today. Creighton has struggled on the road in MVC play. The Bluejays could lose to Bradley next week and then stumble in the conference tourney. And now a mid-major conference that appeared to possess three bids could enter Selection Sunday with one lock (Wichita State) and a Creighton team sitting on the bubble.
I believe in Trae Golden and Jarnell Stokes. The duo has fueled Tennessee’s five-game winning streak. On Saturday, Golden (32 points) and Stokes (20 points, 16 rebounds) -- along with Jordan McRae (23 points) -- led the Vols to a 93-85 four-overtime road win over Texas A&M. The SEC is a very lukewarm league. Most teams have suffered surprising road losses. Few have compiled impressive runs. But Tennessee is playing its best basketball right now. There are no guarantees in the SEC tourney. The Vols aren’t in the dance right now, but they could be in a few weeks.
What a week for Cal. The Bears held off Oregon State for a 60-59 win on Saturday. On Thursday, Justin Cobbs hit a shot in the final seconds to seal his team's two-point victory over Oregon. Cal has won five in row. With three games left, the Bears still in the mix for the Pac-12 title.